Why to Relax the Ankles?

Reducing drag is associated with swimming success. For all the strokes, a straight line from the hands to the feet reduces drag. One area with high drag are the ankles, which Allan Phillips has discussed in great detail on this website (Ankles and Swimming Part II, Ankles and Swimming Part I, Ankles and Swimming Part III, Ankles and Swimming Part IV).

Through these volumes of writing, the ability to relax the ankles is seldom discussed. Now, it is crucial to have large ankle plantarflexion (pointing) range of motion for decreasing drag, none are likely to discount this necessity, but is forcefully maintaining fixed ankle pointing the best route for swimming success? Swimming, like all sports, requires a specific amount of tension and relaxation for balancing proper biomechanics and energy conservation. This balance is key throughout the whole body, as each joint contributes to this delicate continuum. Luckily, these two areas commonly work together, but the ankles are one area where an over emphasis on reducing drag may cripple specific swimmers maximally forcing their ankles down during an entire race.

Now, this article does not have an answer for the most ideal foot position, as this balance likely requires individualization for each specific race. However, is it possible excessively pointing the ankles may induce early fatigue in many swimmers?

One case example was addressed in Sun Yang 1500 Swimming Stroke Analysis London 2012. As the frames depict, this elite swimmer relaxes his ankles at the beginning of the upkick, seemingly whipping his heels back to the surface of the water. Does this action conserve energy? Create energy? Speed the tempo of the kick? These are essential questions to consider as a coach as one size never fits everyone.

Finding the balance between each individual, distance, and stroke are essential for swimming success. Ankle relaxation is another area which requires a balance between energy conservation and maximal velocity. What do you coaches suggest? Maximal ankle pointing and relaxed ankles?

By G. John Mullen founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.